Walking the Green Path: The Microclimate of a Village

Dan with local business owners who are working on being locally-climate oriented

By Daniel Swenson-Klatt | Updated April 30, 2023

The nature of sustainability can be broken down into climates and even microclimates.  There’s a particular set of plants, animals, and landscapes that develop around particular sets of climates and geography.  Nature doesn’t try to grow a tomato in the north woods of Minnesota. Blueberries, however, fit right in.

Humans, and human society, on the other hand, have never felt bound to these limiting factors. And sadly, in our attempts to push the limits, we’ve actually destroyed many of the natural systems that sustain us.  While we are far too along to go back all the way, it seems that some natural “regression” might be necessary.  In fact, I kind of imagine it as a bit of restorative climate change.

This summer, as I’ve planted myself on the customer side of the counter and out along the front patio and the boulevard gardens, I’ve had my own “shock to the heart” as I see how this has reconnected me to my place in the neighborhood.

The image of village resonates with me as a way to take our large-scale urban environment down to a more natural level.  In doing so, I’m learning more about my role in this unique climate that is the neighborhood around Butter Bakery Café.

My presence, now over ten years in the making, on the customer side of the restaurant, allows leaping hugs from a nine-year-old who began her experience at the bakery playing peek-a-boo with me through the bakery case while sitting in her stroller.  It includes the delighted recognition of a regular five-year-old who upon seeing me dining outside another local café must immediately join me to tell of an art project completed that afternoon.

It’s the woman who was there on the day I opened the doors on Grand Avenue and has followed me to the new location, “stopping by” to share her connection with me about literacy for new immigrants while providing her gentle reminder that I’ve agreed to find a way to host a reading at my café for these new authors.

It’s also the sharing of success and challenges, of goodbyes, and new-to-the-block introductions, of young men and women looking for a safe space to be known and cared for amidst the chaos and anonymity of an urban landscape.

It’s the willingness of a young woman to test out the goals I hold for this café as a place of restoration and hope, that she could see her local café owner as a person to lean on when her life felt out of control.

This summer it has also been the people who ask to sit down with me and share their dreams for opening mission-oriented businesses as they begin their journey along the green path.

How did this climate end up on the menu?  I put it there from day one. It began with learning the names of customers, of meeting them on the block, at workplaces and gatherings.  It took the form of discounts and rewards for those who committed to learning about my café.  It was a mutual building of trust and respect.  And as important as the list of producers and farmers on my café wall and on the menu, that customer-owner interaction is the sign that I care deeply about my local environment and its climate.

Requests from customers and neighbors for donations and support come in constantly, and I respond generously knowing that I receive generous support from them without even asking (although sometimes I have put out a request for a bit of extra support).

When restaurants get reviewed, you don’t see this kind of climate included in the conversation.  There aren’t a lot of online reviewers who get past the “how was my food” or “how was the service from the server that particular night” to point to what role this business plays in serving its community.   When a reviewer does mention their gratefulness for the mission and vision of my café I am truly pleased and proud. That’s success.

I completed a bit of data work as a summer project (didn’t you always cringe when the teacher made those suggestions at the end of the school year?) to find out exactly how my goals for sourcing locally were going.  I learned that nearly three-quarters of those I work with (84 of 114) do indeed fit my goals to work with small, independent, family-owned, local businesses.  And I’m now purchasing over 80 percent of my total cost of goods from local, independent, and sustainably run business models. I’m always willing to share with you the list of items that don’t meet my goals so I can get ideas for sourcing better.

I have begun working with a group of local restaurant owners to wrestle with the challenges our industry creates by trying to be locally-climate oriented.  It includes more than just sourcing produce from a local farmer, it’s about the wages we pay and culture we create for those who work for us.  It’s about the damage we do through waste and overconsumption.  It’s about seeking corporate profits over community benefits. This is not the model of a village, where a neighbor who owned an auto parts store offered me a job at fifteen cutting grass around his shop (he drove me there and back) the summer after my father died.

In a village, we learn about each other’s strengths and each other’s needs.  In a village, we are willing to lend support knowing that one day we will need that same support.  In a village, we understand when things are going well or when they aren’t and we react to that changing climate as it changes.

In a village, there’s no need to have a drone (or box-truck) deliver a cup of coffee to a housebound neighbor because their neighbor has already come to the café to pick it up for them.  In a village, a young woman has many people around her to offer her the love she seeks and care she needs as well as a tasty pastry.

Make a place in your world for the microclimate of a village and take a walk with me along this green path.

Walking the Green Path is a series of stories by Daniel Swenson-Klatt, the owner of Butter Bakery Cafe, about what it’s like to run a small business focused on sustainability and building community.

Daniel Swenson-Klatt is a writer, community activist, and owner of Butter Bakery Cafe located in South Minneapolis.

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